Mario Kart 64
Mario Kart 64 is a special case. Although not universally praised by critics, the game developed a cult following among its fans that remains strong over a decade after its release. Websites entirely devoted to maintaining Time Trial world record books are updated regularly to this day, with no real sign of slowing down. And with a peek into a college dorm room, you’d be more likely to find this version of the series being played than any other. Nonetheless, any reliable review aggregator will show Kart 64 to be without question the least favorite of the series prior to Mario Kart Wii.
Of course, neither side is really right, given the undeniably subjective aspect of reviewing a videogame. And certainly the loyal karters had significantly more time to realize the game’s brilliance than the reviewers, most of whom were forced to decide their scores within days of the game’s release. I side firmly with the Kart 64 devotees, even though many of the critics have valid complaints. In fact, there is plenty to complain about, on paper at least. Yet the final experience is undeniably brilliant. I’ll have to try to transcend my medium to explain exactly how this is.
I believe a non-linear experience such as Kart 64 should be judged on its brightest areas, not treated as a sum of its parts. And I’ll say decisively that this review comes almost entirely from a multi-player perspective. Like most competition-based games, the single-player modes take a backseat. If you’re a real racing purist, you might enjoy spending countless hours besting your record times in the Time Trials, but I don’t fall into this category. And aside from the innate shortcomings of beating up on mindless computer-controlled racers, the single-player Grand Prix suffers from some serious AI issues (which carry over to multi-player GP, but aren’t as big a deal there, as your main focus will be on besting your friends). The computer-controlled racers are wired with blatant catch-up/fall-back abilities (the Magnet Engine, as I’ve just now decided to term it) which ruin most of the racing integrity. And in the end, the challenge just isn’t there (even in 150cc) for experienced players. Unlocking all the Cups and getting a feel for the controls will keep you contently occupied with single-player your first week or two with the game, but after that it’s on to the real meat and potatoes.
Battle mode is a mixed bag. Some love it, while others can do without it. With an entirely different premise, it can be a fun excursion when you feel temporarily burned-out by the other game modes. But its simplicity leaves for a lack of potential possibilities, creativity and ultimately satisfaction—there are only so many ways to peg someone with a turtle shell. Also, the game’s engine was not designed for maneuvering in such an open atmosphere, which makes for some awkward controlling at times.
The multi-player racing is where the game’s real genius is uncovered. Versus mode is exactly the same as GP, minus the computer-controlled racers and with a few randomly-placed rolling bombs added to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, GP isn’t available with three or four players (possibly due to technical limitations), so Versus mode will be your only choice in that scenario—a minor complaint, considering you’ll still have countless hours of fun there. Two-player Versus mode presents you with the classic mano a mano race with a friend, although it might be a stretch to call it fairer than two-player GP. Reason being, the second-place player is essentially treated equally by the game’s item distribution system as the eighth-place player would be in GP, so you’ll frequently find a player only hair-lengths out of the lead picking up powerful items like lightning bolts and stars. Nevertheless, both modes are great accomplishments in well-balanced arcade-like racing bliss.
Now that it’s clear where the game really works well, let’s take a look at why it works so well. As with most great games, it all starts with the controls. They’re straightforward and feel comfortable right from the get-go. They’re pretty easy to pick up, but require a seemingly endless journey to truly master. Powersliding and the accompanying mini-boosts are an essential technique to learn if you want to keep up with experienced karters. And if you start to think you’ve perfected your skills, check out a world record video or two online, and your delusions of grandeur are likely to die down pretty quickly.
The racing engine is important, but equally important in this genre is the item system. The Kart series didn’t invent the idea of items (it probably owes a lot to Rare’s R.C. Pro-Am for the NES), but it did revolutionize it. The item system in Kart 64 is top-notch, and as good as or better than those from the other games in the series.
What’s often overlooked is how perfectly the game’s more laid back atmosphere blends with the strategy side of item use. In most of the other Kart games, the overly frantic action (Double Dash!! and Kart Wii stand out particularly in this regard) or tightly coiled track designs tend to make using items a trigger-happy and rather random affair—you pick up an item and use it, quickly, before you get hit by a lightning bolt, blue shell, etc. and drop it or lose your concentration thinking about how to use it. Thankfully, there’s no dropping items in Kart 64, and the more elongated track designs give you time to strategize. So if you want to hang on to those triple green shells until your unsuspecting buddy creeps up behind you on a dangerous cliff edge, go for it. Maybe you want to save that row of bananas for the narrow bridge near the end of the track. Or you might think to hold on to your lightning bolt until your opponents reach the course’s big ramp on the third lap. Nobody can stop you, so have at it. Strategy matters, and a creative one can be a thing of beauty.
Item talk logically segues into the game’s outstanding physics engine. In the last few years, Nintendo has followed a disappointing trend of over-polishing things in the Kart series. What the creators envision has become the entire set of what is possible—nothing more. Luckily, Kart 64 came before this ugly development. Just about anything is possible, and the real fruits of this come when the shells start to fly. Not only will a shell send a racer several feet into the air but, depending on the kart’s momentum, considerably more than several feet in the direction it’s headed, based on its speed. Needless to say, this makes for plenty of hilarious and quite satisfying assaults on rivals, especially on tracks where long falls are possible.
I’ll stand against the majority of critics by sticking up for the game’s tracks as some of the best in the series. Sure, there are bland and overly simple ones like Moo Moo Farm and Luigi Raceway. And I can’t fail to mention the disgustingly uncreative and unchallenging Rainbow Road. But the majority of the tracks offer a good amount of imagination, danger and opportunities for creativity. Bowser’s Castle and Royal Raceway stand out particularly in such regards, and are personal favorites of mine. Of course, the tracks’ design schemes are entirely different from those found in the game’s predecessor, Super Mario Kart, but you’d have to expect them to be, given the vast difference in the gameplay mechanics and focus. Comparing tracks from such different games is a tricky and possibly dangerous thing to do, so I won’t get into that here. I’ll simply say that, like the Super Nintendo version, Kart 64’s tracks work very well given the context of the gameplay.
Assigning an overall rating to this game is a tough task. The strictly rational side of me wants to concentrate on its numerous and obvious flaws, and penalize it accordingly. And yet, I’ve had more fun with this game over the past decade plus than 95 percent of the games I’ve ever played. It’s my favorite game in the series, and among my favorite of all-time. When all is said and done, Kart 64 drags itself through the mud and still manages to come out golden. On a hundred-point scale, I find myself placing it somewhere between a 90 and a 100. On a true ten-point scale, I just can’t justify not rounding up.